Jean-Michel Cousteau's "Favorite Place on Earth"

July 7, 2009
“Twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of going with our team to explore the Amazon. I had a lot of questions, and I came out 20 months later with more questions than I had when I went in.” - Jean-Michel Cousteau

For the book, award-winning travel writer Jerry Camarillo Dunn rounded up 75 remarkable people – ranging from the Dalai Lama to Will Ferrell to Jane Goodall – and asked them a simple question: What place do you love most in the world?

Their answers range from a lost city in Sri Lanka to the Pasadena Rose Parade, from an island surfing paradise in Fiji to the Left Bank in Paris.
Jean-Michel Cousteau is joined by such fascinating people as singer James Taylor, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, mind-body medicine pioneer Deepak Chopra, actors Morgan Freeman and Natalie Portman, comic Jerry Seinfeld, sitar master Ravi Shankar, chef Alice Waters, newsman Tom Brokaw, “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, writer Ray Bradbury, filmmaker George Lucas, and many others. For the complete list and more information, go to www.myfavoriteplacenatgeo.com.

Please continue below to read my excerpt from the book!

Jean-Michel Cousteau: The Amazon, Peru from the book My Favorite Place on Earth

Twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of going with our team to explore the Amazon. I had a lot of questions, and I came out 20 months later with more questions than I had when I went in.

We have no sense of how big the Amazon is and how much impact it has on every one of our lives every day. The Amazon Basin is as big as the continental United States. The Amazon River has ten tributaries that are as big or bigger than the Mississippi River, and the system pours out 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. The Amazon has more fish species than the entire Atlantic Ocean, with about 5,000 discovered so far. And that’s not to mention the area’s insects, birds, trees, and plants.

We are all connected to the Amazon. The frame of the sofa you’re sitting on may have come from the rain forest. The steak I eat in Paris may have been raised on soybeans from the Amazon, because trees are being cleared to raise cattle and plant soybeans. Every year, they clear-cut an area as big as the state of New Jersey. Who knows what medicinal plants are there to be discovered – if we can do it before we destroy them.

But beyond all this, I was totally blown away when I realized that there were thousands of native people in the Amazon who were not accounted for. They had no identity papers, no land ownership. These South American Indians roam the Amazon as they had done for thousands of years. They are human beings just like us, yet, I was outraged to learn, in the 1960s, “invaders” – we – used to hunt them for sport. Outsiders started going there to look for petroleum or to cut trees for export, and on weekends, when they had nothing else to do, those invaders would take off in airplanes and helicopters and go hunting Indians. They would come back at night and, over their six-packs of beer, ask each other, “How many did you get today?” “Oh, I got 17, what about you?

The native people of the Amazon are in the way of big corporations, particularly the oil companies. They know that the territory was set aside for the Indians, but the companies don’t even consider asking their permission to go into the rain forest. They just invade.

In total contrast to all this is a chief of the Achuar, a group of the Jivaro, whom I met in his remote village near the border between Peru and Ecuador. Chief Kukus (ku-koosh) had nearly as much impact on me as my own father. He taught me his values. Yet in his own country, this gentleman was considered a strange human being, with no more rights than a tapir or a cockroach.

His village stood on a river in the deep forest. In order to avoid snakes and termites, the people cleared the area around their wooden houses, which were set on stilts because of the rain. The area below the floor sheltered the pigs and chickens they raised.

There were a lot of birds in the trees, and monkeys all over the place. The people hunted with blowguns and poison darts, but in a sustainable way. They only killed what they needed, what Nature could provide.

Chief Kukus showed me some trees he had planted that were about ten feet tall. He told me: “I’ll never see them grow big enough, and my children won’t either – even my grandchildren, probably not. But my great-grandchildren, they’ll be able to use those trees that I have planted.” He pointed to one in particular and said, “That’s going to make a good canoe.”

For me, the chief expressed the unwritten constitution of the future. In our modern culture we deal only with the present – now now now. We say we care about our children and grandchildren, yet we do nothing about it. But the Jivaro people have the right concept. They know how to live in harmony with nature in a sustainable way.

Chief Kukus got to me very deeply, and I wanted his people to be recognized, to have identities. We tried to get him papers, but had no success on the local level, so I took him to see the president of Peru, Fernando Belaúnde Terry.

When we got to the airport terminal in Iquitos, it was so strange: The chief had never seen stairs before. We went upstairs to wait for the airplane, and voices were coming out of the corners of the room, from black boxes. The chief had never heard loudspeakers. Then the DC-8 landed, roaring up the airstrip to the terminal. Chief Kukus said, “Ah, yes. I’ve seen it in the sky, but it was that small,” and he made a gesture with his thumb and forefinger.

We flew over the Andes, where there are no trees, only glaciers and snow, and the chief was astounded at the sight. After we landed in Lima, I thought it might be a culture shock for him to be in a big city – about four million people then – so I took him to the beach first. The chief walked across the sand to the water, then suddenly stopped. He asked, “Where’s the other side of the lake? It was the Pacific Ocean.

We went to the hotel and had lunch. Several days before, I had invited Chief Kukus to try Champagne, which is part of the French way. I had opened the bottle and held up the cork and the wire that holds it, and said, “You know, chief, there is a tradition in my country where I give you the cork – that’s the ‘bird’ – and I keep the ‘cage.’ We’re supposed to keep them with us all the time. Next time we meet, you can show me the cork and say, ‘Where is the cage for my bird,’ or I can show you the wire and say, ‘Where is the bird for my cage?’ And if one of us doesn’t have it, he has to buy a new bottle of Champagne!” During lunch at the hotel, Chief Kukus produced the cork and said, “Where is the cage for my bird?” He had carried the cork all the way from his village.

Chief Kukus painted his face and wore feathers and beautiful attire for his meeting with the president of Peru. But he did not get his papers. Belaúnde claimed, “Even the president cannot do anything against the institutions.” It really hurt me, and we went back to the chief’s village very disappointed.

In my whole life, only three or four people have had the impact of that Jivaro gentleman. Chief Kukus died in 1997.

Compass Points
Where: The Amazon Rainforest covers 3.4 million square miles in South America and is shared by nine countries, including Brazil (60 percent) and Peru.

Backdrop: The Amazon rain forest is the richest, most varied biological repository on Earth, with millions of species of birds, animals, insects, and plants – many still unrecorded by science. At about 4,000 miles in length, the Amazon River could stretch from New York City to Rome. During rainy season floods, some sections of the river can be 25 miles wide. To obtain revenge and supernatural power, Jivaro warriors formerly took their enemies’ heads and shrank them to the size of an orange.

Visitor Information: www.peru.info/perueng.asp

To learn more about the book please visit www.myfavoriteplacenatgeo.com

A very special thank-you to author Jerry Camarillo Dunn and National Geographic for allowing us to share this excerpt with our members!